We will not stop the music
“I love America and I hate America.” At a time when the pendulum is about to swing drastically to the latter for a lot of people, I’m sitting down for a pint with Shaun Powell, the driving force behind one of Liverpool’s most intriguing new bands, PSYCHO COMEDY. But the Walton native is not talking about the imminent election, he’s already made it clear that he finds it futile and “too easy” to comment on such matters. Powell is talking about his concept, preferring to refer to Psycho Comedy as such. “It is a band, but it’s more of a concept. I don’t think that Psycho Comedy, the music, is by any means original but I do think the lyrics and the concept with the music is original. There’s never been a Liverpool band that sound like us – I think a lot of people will be surprised that we are a Liverpool band.” Over the course of our chat, the singer is at pains to elucidate on what he means by Psycho Comedy, the concept, and what sets them apart from the pack.
The concept was conceived by Powell years ago, from an idea to a name to a logo – the canine character Varmint (more on that later) – to its guise today as a band made up of Powell, his “soul brother” Connor Duff on bass, Lydia McGhee on guitar, Jack Thompson on noise guitar and Jack Williams attempting to keep things together on drums. Despite appearing on the support bills of some of this year’s most exciting gigs, signing with venerable Liverpool institution Deltasonic Records and recording with Echo & The Bunnymen producer Gil Norton, Psycho Comedy as a unit is still in its relative infancy. While Powell has been thinking of the concept for much longer, it is the five-piece, made up of fellow North Liverpool misfits, who have made the vision a glorious, if sometimes shambolic, reality. “Psycho Comedy as just me with a guitar would just sound like Studio 54 or something,” Powell tells me, New York being a constant thread and reference point throughout our conversation. “The band are more into psych and they inject it with a bit of that California sound. You also have Connor on bass, who’s into Motown and Black Sabbath. So I bring The Stooges and he brings Sabbath.”
It’s obvious that Powell is a veracious consumer of pop culture as well as some of its more toxic materials, and he isn’t bashful in telling you where he wants his band to stand in rock ‘n’ roll’s pantheon. The Bunnymen are regularly mentioned as an influence, as are The Rolling Stones and NYC musical touchstones Television and Johnny Thunders. Films like Taxi Driver and Bad Lieutenant are obviously important to Powell too in demonstrating the breadth of his New York aesthetic, but he is also keen to give a nod to local peers such as FUSS and Strange Collective. For anyone who has caught Psycho Comedy this year, some of these influences will be obvious, from the band’s eccentric look to the howled lyrics and the persistent rumble of a Velvets-esque rhythm section; it’s rock ‘n’ roll as endorsed by Warhol, infused with the damp of dingy basements and sparked into life by a wild imagination and an appetite for narcotic insanity. The Hummingbirds, it ain’t. “Everyone is obsessed with having harmonies in their songs and having three singers in the band. With Bunnymen, McCulloch was the only singer. Some people say to me, ‘Go ‘ead, you should get some harmonies’ – fuck the harmonies.”
Not averse to a Gallagher-esque soundbite, Powell fully inhabits his carefully constructed world of Psycho Comedy, and within this world there are certain rules like “fuck the harmonies”. Powell also follows the gospel according to Richards, and herein separates his ragtag collective from many of Liverpool’s lineage of great bands: “I’d rather wear a black hat than a white hat; Keith had it right there, didn’t he?” I agree and make a mental note to check the reference. “I love the Beatles and I don’t necessarily think the Stones were better than the Beatles, but I prefer the Stones to the Beatles. That’s the way that I’ve felt, ever since I saw the tongue [logo] as a kid. It’s sorta like seeing a naked body for the first time, isn’t it?”
Powell’s reverence for rock’s heritage is as infectious as the hooks in his songs. So far, Psycho Comedy have released a clutch of singles and each has come across as a call to arms. He explains debut track I’m Numb, which dropped late last year, as a coming-down dialogue with oneself, while recent anthem One, recorded in Wales with Gil Norton, is the sound of a real evolution for the band. Both songs are accompanied by a simple yet opaque video from collaborator Adam Carlton. The latter was presented as the “alibi piece of the Psycho Comedy concept”. It’s not always easy to follow Powell’s train of thought, and the videos only muddy the water further. “Psycho Comedy is a split personality,” he explains, and that is what the character Varmint illustrates. “You see everything through a different perspective, like a different colour – like insanity, I suppose. I don’t want to go down into a dungeon and get whipped like some bands are making out [they’re doing] but really they’re just going to the Sainbury’s the next day, you know what I mean?”
For their Magnet support slot for Cabbage, Powell sported a jacket emblazoned with ‘Life In A Northern Town’ on the back, the title of The Dream Academy’s 1980s ode to Nick Drake. Expressing himself through a prism of popular cultural references seems second nature to Powell. “I listened to it a few days before we went to record with Gil and I felt absolutely exhilarated. We were going to record with a boss producer, five of us, all northern, going to do something that not everyone does every day, fucking happy about it.”
The singer confirms my feeling that his dress code is central to the Psycho Comedy conceit. “I feel a bit out of order with myself if I don’t dress good. It’s a concept thing. My image is absolutely vital to how I lead my day. I can’t write a song in my pyjamas, man, I wish I could,” he tells me, dressed in a blue velour trackie top under a black suit and sporting faded blue/grey hair. Somehow, it looks great.
Such an outlook almost ties all of the disparate, madcap strands that are Psycho Comedy together. ““I’d love to sell out Madison Square Garden eventually, but what I want now is to release the record,” he tells me, looking visibly restless and anxious to share his vision with the world. “I want us to stand the test of time, I want to [be able to] look back, otherwise I’d feel irrelevant and that’s not good for my insanity,” he says, suggesting, perhaps aptly, he’d prefer to maintain insanity as his default state. “I eat the same food as everyone else, so why would I want to dress like everyone else and sound like everyone else?”
One is out now on Spotify and iTunes. Photos were taken on site at Ghetto Golf in Cains Brewery – thanks to Danny, Kip and the team for all their help.